Pyramus and Thisbe were two young lovers whose relationship was limited to late-night rendezvous, getting to know each other through a small hole in a stone wall that separates their families’ properties. One night, they decide to meet instead by a large mulberry tree in a nearby graveyard. Pyramus finds evidence that Thisbe has been attacked by a lion, and, thinking her dead, kills himself. Upon seeing Pyramus’ lifeless corpse, Thisbe, too, does herself in. That’s pretty much it.
This ancient tragedy was first written down in 8 AD, appearing in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a 15-volume continuous epic poem spanning the creation of the world through his own time. In Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare has a group of local craftsmen who believe themselves great actors perform the Pyramus and Thisbe story at a wedding reception. His text allows plenty of room for overacting, with the guests and royal family frequently interrupting with advice for improving the story and its execution. Part of the humor comes from the fact that the actors are not deterred. We also find it funny that they are absolutely AWFUL actors and don’t know it, or don’t care.
The Ancient Tale of Pyramus & Thisbe
thing solid enough to play around with.
This rock opera extracts the monologues more or less verbatim from Shakespeare’s script, and sets them to “Beatlesque” music (allowing for one that feels more like The Who). One challenge was to find song forms in a text written with no concern for singing. While songs typically have structures based around verses and a chorus, Shakespeare’s lines ravel on with little time for recollection. What’s worse, many of the characters’ soliloquies are interrupted by heckling from the wedding guests. This explains some of the crazy endings in the opera.
Another challenge was finding ways to make the opera sound like a unified whole. Without getting too detailed, suffice it to say that many of the musical motives and themes reappear in several songs. If you’re up for some fun, listen for two in particular: the tune at the beginning of the chorus of “If We Offend,” and the “Donkey Theme” first heard in Act III when Bottom is turned into an ass (Track 11, “The Ousel Cock” on this CD.
For this to work as a humorous opera, Shakespeare’s “hackery” was better confined to the actors’ cluelessness rather than making the music itself sound inept. That’s not to say that every theater production needs to be musically flawless. Not at all. I just wanted to write some-
During a TV 1964 special called “Around The Beatles,” Paul, John, George, and Ringo performed Pyramus and Thisbe to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.